Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More on Abstraction

Head Study, 12 x 9 inches, oil on paper.

Several weeks ago I got stuck doing a big landscape painting –what you'd call a slump –and I'm still stuck. I haven't been able to resolve the painting yet, but I did make some progress and I think may be the tide is turning. (whew~)

On the figure painting front, I've done a few good studies during this time. Nothing more involved than small studies, but I'm particularly happy with this one I'm posting today.

I've been thinking about Nicolai Fechin lately and how he slipped in and out of abstraction in such a masterful way. I wanted to know and understand how and what he thought to achieve his expressive yet precise strokes. Obviously I can't ask him or watch him paint (he's long gone) so all I can do is study his works, guess at his thought process, and try to get into his head.

In order to paint expressively and abstractly, you have to disconnect yourself from representational thinking. On the other hand, colors and values still need to be spot on so that the form is believable, meaning you have to think representationally. How to reconcile this dichotomy? Thinking representationally and NOT thinking representationally are quite simply, a contradiction, isn't it?

It's taken me years to figure out how to do it. I still can't do it to my satisfaction, but I'm definitely making progress, and that's encouraging. I was thinking, damn, I wish I had a teacher who could tell me how to do this! Turns out, I did have a teacher, many teachers who told me how to do this, in many different ways;  "Don't paint the thing. Paint the light." "Paint notes of color." "Lay down overlapping mosaics of color." "Don't name the thing you're painting."

I just wasn't ready to fully understand what they meant! It's true what they say about learning; You only learn something when you're ready to learn it.

The way I finally was able to resolve the representation–abstraction dichotomy was to think representationally at the palette, and consciously and intentionally switch gears into non-representational thinking at the point of application. And I found that it's very helpful if I slow wayyyy down and review each stroke and ask myself, was I thinking nose, or note when I put that down?

Obviously if I have to review each stroke, it takes a hell of a long time to do even a simple picture but after a while, switching gears start to become more of an intuitive process.

Because this whole gear switching business is counterintuitive for me, it takes a lot of mental effort and I do envy those who're able to think this way more naturally.  But that's OK, the challenging nature of the process is what makes it fascinating. If it came to me easily, I probably wouldn't be interested in it.

I just ordered the new Fechin book. I can't wait to get my hands on it!


  1. This is a beautiful portrait, reminding me of Carolyn Anderson's work.

    I enjoy your posts, exposing as they do the struggle to become the artist that you want to be.

    Happy painting and posting!

  2. Thank you for such a clear and focused description of your communication/connection between representation and abstraction. It is so very well broken down. Thank you for being so willing to share your conscious practice so well.

  3. Yes, that is the issue and there are so many decisions in even the smallest painting....

  4. Your painting today reminds me of Dan Beck's work, who is very much alive and painting. I love your blog and your work. This is a direction I too am working toward though I haven't posted any. Good luck~!

  5. Thanks Ingrid, su02420, Vicki, and Laine~

    Carolyn Anderson, Dan Beck... both fine painters with a lot of Fechin in them. Love their work~

  6. What book on Fechin would that be then?

  7. Johan, it's this one;


  8. Thanks, Terry, for the link.
    This looks like a really nice book!

    (Too bad it's out of my budget, I know what to save up for now)

    According to the artist in this link, it's wise to buy it now and not wait too long...

    Some nice digital reproductions on his blog post as well.

    The book will be a real gem I'm sure

  9. Thanks for sharing this important insight. I've been struggling with thiis switch in/between abstraction and representation. I'll need to try it. Hopefully, I'm ready for this lesson to take hold

  10. Hi Terry - I visited the Fechin Museum in Taos and fell in love with his work -- all of it. Beautiful wood carvings and more. Vivacious color and beautiful subjects. I, too, go back and forth with abstraction and when it works, it's wonderful, but at times I get "confused" and do both. Interesting. It seems to be a weaving of back and forth from reality to intuition.
    Love your work! Penny